As you likely know, one of AR’s foundational principles is to fuse the digital and physical. The real world is a key part of that formula… and real-world relevance is often defined by location. That same relevance and scarcity are what drive real estate value….location, location, location.
Synthesizing these factors, one of AR’s battlegrounds will be in augmenting the world in location-relevant ways. That could be wayfinding with Google Live View, or visual search with Google Lens. Point your phone (or future glasses) at places and objects to contextualize them.
As you can tell from the above examples, Google will have a key stake in this “Internet of Places.” But it’s not alone. Apple signals interest in location-relevant AR through its geo-anchors and Project Gobi. Facebook is building “Live Maps,” and Snapchat is pushing Local Lenses.
These are a few utilitarian, commerce, and social angles. How else will geospatial AR materialize? What are its active ingredients, including 5G and the AR cloud? This is the theme of our new series, Space Race, where we break down who’s doing what….continuing here with AR Startups.
In other words, after examining and profiling tech giants’ individual moves in AR’s space race, we now shift gears to examine smaller companies that are doing the same. There are several of them, but we’ll look at a representative sample that covers a range of approaches.
First on that list is Gowalla. You may remember the company as the late 2000’s social/ local/ mobile (SoLoMo) app that competed with Foursquare. It was acquired by Facebook in 2011, then mostly faded away. But now it’s back for more SoLoMo action….this time with an AR focus.
Specifically, it will launch later this year with $4 million in fresh funding to offer geo-relevant and gamified AR experiences. This could be built around a local discovery use case with a social twist: Hold up your phone to reveal game elements or notes that friends left for you.
That’s mostly our speculation based on early clues. To provide more color, co-founder Patrick Piemonte tells TechCrunch that it takes inspiration from the social side of TikTok and the platform side of Roblox. The latter could make it a sort of MMO for the real world (credit: Ubiquity6).
Gowalla also hopes to create stickiness through user incentives. That could be gamified elements such as points & badges (a nod to the original Gowalla). And it will monetize in similar ways as Pokémon Go and Fortnite: in-game purchases for digital goods to enhance the experience.
Lastly, Gowalla joins the AR space race with less reach and spending power than the Googles and Snaps of the world. But it may have an edge in its competency with location-based experiences. That’s likewise an advantage held by Niantic, which happens to be one of Gowalla’s investors.
Gowalla isn’t alone in being an all-star of the late 2000’s SoLoMo scene. Its chief competition from that era is likewise entering geospatial AR: Foursquare. After reinventing itself as a B2B data powerhouse, it still spins out innovative consumer-facing software in its Labs division.
The latest is an audio AR experience known as Marsbot for AirPods. This is a virtual assistant that proactively whispers geo-activated recommendations in your ear. That could be a new gastropub in your neighborhood or nearby happy hours when you wander into a new area.
Naturally, the geo-spatial elements are powered by Foursquare’s places database. Though many people think of Foursquare as that check-in app from the 2010s, the company is many years into a fruitful pivot to build the “location layer” for the internet (see our writing here).
This provides a rich dataset for AR experiences, congruent with the principles of the AR cloud. In fact, we’ve long predicted that the AR cloud will benefit from location intelligence players like Foursquare with unique data on not only places but nuanced consumer interaction.
But because AR isn’t a prevalent consumer behavior yet, Foursquare knows that it can make the most impact where there are lower adoption barriers and an installed base of AirPods. That’s why Marsbot is an experiment, and Foursquare knows that AR will be a moving target.
“The purpose of Marsbot was never to attract millions of users,” Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley told us, “but rather to showcase how contextually-aware technologies will shape the future of AR and how Foursquare’s technology can be the foundation [for] those experiences.”
The third geospatial AR startup we’ll examine in this representative sample is ARWay. It provides developer kits to build indoor AR navigation experiences, such as shopping malls and other public spaces. This has implications for valuable utilities and monetizable AR commerce.
One of the biggest challenges according to ARWay founder & CEO Baran Korkmaz is platform fragmentation. Major AR development platforms offer AR object persistence — Google Cloud Anchors, Apple GeoAnchors, Microsoft Spatial Anchors — that don’t talk to each other.
Among other things, ARWay is working towards a sort of translation layer between platforms and devices. The goal is for users to be able to begin navigating visually, without jumping through a bunch of hoops or hit a brick wall of incompatibility. Adoption is challenged enough already.
Panning back, this issue of platform fragmentation is a common topic in AR cloud circles. The problem is that tech giants are each building their own AR clouds. And they’re investing heavily, while incentivized by monetization potential….which sometimes requires walled gardens.
Given the size of these investments, tech giants have the right to maximize their returns. But when dealing with walled gardens, the key word is interoperability, says Korkmaz. The model is the web: there are proprietary interests but common standards, protocols and languages.
Meanwhile, Korkmaz wants to pick up where 6d.ai. left off. Before being acquired by Niantic, it was the pre-eminent tool for building mini-AR clouds in a given space. Though it’s being deployed in Niantic’s Lightship platform, its exit leaves a gap for certain commercial AR development.
The above three cases are, again, a representative sample of startup-driven geospatial AR efforts (you could argue that Foursquare isn’t a startup). A more exhaustive list would include companies such as YouAR, Darabase, Resonai and Scape Technologies (acquired by Facebook).
Beyond the tech giants we’ve already examined in this Space Race series, these smaller players will fill important gaps in the geospatial AR value chain. That could be focused consumer experiences like GoWalla, or critical data and developer tools like Foursquare and ARWay.
Either way, geospatial AR will be an opportune subsegment of the overall AR world. Indeed, realistically fusing digital and physical worlds requires a hefty dose of spatially-relevant data and understanding. Like many other emerging sectors, there will be several points of entry.